NYC Historical Ferry Lines

Including the Harlem and Staten Island lines, there are twenty-three lines of ferries plying between New York and the adjacent shores. Of these, nine are in the North or Hudson river, and fourteen in the East river. The boats are large side-wheel vessels, capable of carrying both foot-passengers, horses, and vehicles. Early in the morning they are crowded with persons and teams coming into the city, and in the afternoon the travel is equally great away from the city. On some of the lines the boats ply every five minutes; on others the intervals are longer. The Harlem and Staten Island boats start hourly—the fare on these lines is ten cents. On the East river lines it is two cents, on the North river three cents.

The boats are large and handsome. Nearly all of them are lighted with gas, and at least a score of them are seen in the stream at the same moment. At night, with their many colored lights, they give to the river quite a gala appearance. The travel on them is immense. Over fifty millions of persons are annually transported by them. Many often carry from 800 to 1000 passengers at a single trip.

During the summer it is pleasant enough to cross either of the rivers which encircle the island; but in the winter such travelling is very dangerous. Storms of snow, fogs, and floating ice interfere greatly with the running of the boats, and render accidents imminent. Collisions are frequent during rough or thick weather, and the ice sometimes carries the boats for miles out of their course. The East river is always more or less crowded with vessels of all kinds, either in motion or at anchor, and even in fair weather it is only by the exercise of the greatest skill on the part of the pilot that collisions can be avoided. The following incident from one of the city journals for November 14, 1868, will show how terrible these accidents are:

“Early this morning, when the Brooklyn boats are most crowded, chiefly with workmen and girls coming to the city just before working hours, a frightful collision took place as one of the Fulton ferry boats was entering the New York slip, resulting in the wounding of probably twenty persons, many of them fatally. At that hour four boats are run on the Fulton ferry, the Union and Columbia running on a line, as also the Hamilton and Clinton. The Clinton being slightly detained on the New York side, the Hamilton, waiting for her, remained longer than usual at the Brooklyn slip, and received therefore an immense load of passengers, probably over a thousand. At this time in the morning, it being flood tide, a strong current sets up the East river from Governor’s Island, which is just now further strengthened by the freshet on the Hudson. The Hamilton, therefore, after being carried up on the Brooklyn side, and turning in the centre of the river, steamed down some distance below the New York slip, as usual, in order not to be carried beyond by the upward tide. Turning, she then came up to the slip, where the Union was laying, chained up, at the southern or lower ferry-way. Close in by the piers an eddy from the main current which strikes New York about Beekman street, sets strongly down stream. As the Hamilton came into the slip from below, aiming at the upper ferry- way, her bow was caught by this eddy and swung around with great force toward the end of the Union. The Hamilton having a full load and the Union having just discharged hers, the former was much the lower in the water. The projecting guard of the Union therefore entered the front part of the ladies’ cabin at about the height of the seats, and also smashed the rails on the outer deck. This particular part of the boat was, of course, the most densely crowded, and the consequences of the shock were frightful. One boy, George Brewer, who was said to have been outside the chain, was caught by the foot and instantly killed, his head and a good part of the body being mashed to a jelly. Several had their feet cut off below the knee, and a dozen others were seriously injured. The following is the list of those known to be hurt. It is probable that several cases have not yet been discovered, and one or two may have fallen overboard and not yet been missed. People looking anxiously for missing friends, supposed to have been on the fated boat, have been calling in great numbers during the morning at the ferry- house and the police station.”

Efforts have been made to span the East river with a bridge, for the purpose of affording sure and safe communication between this city and Brooklyn, but the plan has always met with the sternest and most uncompromising hostility from the ferry companies, who wish to retain their present enormous business.


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